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Miss Marple

If I had not included Miss Marple in my Sleuth Thursday posts, I would currently be homeless.

In fact, I might be dead, murdered by my housemate the Durham Lass, who would be found sewing innocently and looking like Snow White and with a large ceremonial knife cleaned and back in its place in the museum where she works. She’d definitely get away with it, too.

My housemate is a big Miss Marple fan. We have watched the Miss Marple box set (the series starring Joan Hickson, and no other Miss Marple is spoken of within our walls). She plans, when old, to have a rose garden and solve crimes. In preparation for that day, we both drink a lot of tea and discuss lady sleuths. Miss Marple is her hero.

Of course, I was keen to write about Miss Marple anyway. Agatha Christie had a legion of imaginary friends as a child, which fits in well with UNSPOKEN, and is so very best-selling that Miss Marple may be the most famous lady sleuth we have.

Which is OK, as Miss Marple might be the greatest lady sleuth of all time.

One piece of writing advice I think is excellent is to read bad books. The things that are very annoying are often very inspiring. ‘I will do better than that,’ you think. ‘I will fix that.’

The thing that annoyed Agatha Christie when she created Miss Marple was a play of her own book, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD. In it, the narrator has a spinster sister called Caroline. ‘Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home.’

In the play they made Caroline a foxy young lady. Well, come on, we see it all the time… what good is a girl who isn’t there to be foxy? Agatha Christie was like ‘OK. OK. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! The elderly gossipy spinster lady who is always a side character is going to be the detective. You try to write her out then. You try. Come at me, bro!--Agatha Christie.’

Miss Marple was also partly based on Agatha Christie’s grandmother and her grandmother’s friends. This is what Christie said of her grandmother: 'Though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.''

Which is Miss Marple to a T. She’s an old lady knitting away and saying brightly: ‘The world is a terrible place and everyone you know is probably a murderer. These biscuits are delicious!’

The first appearance of Miss Marple was in short stories, in one of which a lady describes her as ‘the typical old maid of fiction.’ It was Agatha Christie’s declaration of war: the deconstruction and thoughtful analysis of a stock type, making a persona into a person.

That’s the crux of what Agatha Christie did with Miss Marple—what Miss Marple does with everyone, and what every writer has to do with a protagonist—look at the surface of a person and think deeply about them. That’s how you make them the main character.

So the archetype of an old lady who loves gossip… what do you have when you really think about that person? Someone who’s lived a long time—who has a lot of experience. And someone who’s obviously really interested in people, and how they work and think. Suddenly, someone who seems obviously qualified to be a sleuth!

That was the beginning for Miss Marple. There was a good deal more.

What is there to say about Miss Jane Marple?

Queen Elizabeth II is a fan. She gave the actress who most famously played Miss Marple, Joan Hickson, an OBE and Joan Hickson was like ‘Thanks, Your Maj’ and Queen Elizabeth was like ‘Basically, I can’t give an OBE to fictional characters, so you will have to do.’

Unlike the Queen, in the books people generally dismiss Miss Marple. And she’s like ‘Oh sorry dear, don’t mind me, just solving a murder and saving your ass so you can continue to talk out of it.’

In the first story where Miss Marple is introduced, there’s a Tuesday night club where friends and relatives of Miss Marple (her writer nephew Raymond, his artist girlfriend, a lawyer, a clergyman and the just-retired former Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir Henry) all tell each other real-life mysteries to see who would be best at solving them.

Raymond’s girlfriend Joyce assumes Miss Marple won’t play, excluding her when counting people, and is surprised she’d want to. She adds that ‘I know life as darling Miss Marple here cannot possibly know it.’ ‘I don’t know about that, dear’ says Miss Marple, who proceeds to guess every mystery correctly and shatter everyone in the room’s preconceptions a hundred times over.

Joyce’s name changes to Joan in the books. Possibly Miss Marple steered Raymond towards a nicer artist lady. Possibly Raymond murdered Joyce and Miss Marple turned a blind eye.

Sir Henry Clithering, former Commissioner, becomes a giant Miss Marple fanboy, and wanders the country making people invite her to dinner, insisting she help the police out with all sorts of things, and seeing to it that his godson refers to her as ‘Aunt Jane.’ Sir Henry literally does not listen to any other detectives at any time: he just runs around the place going ‘Ask Jane Marple! Why will you not consult Miss Marple? MARPLE IT! Like google but with knitting! I’m really happy for you, Sherlock Holmes, and Imma let you finish, but Jane Marple is the greatest detective of all time. OF ALL TIME.’

Sir Henry is retired, and Miss Marple in the early books cannot be much older than sixty or sixty-five: they are not that far apart in age. I always secretly believed that Sir Henry had a crush and Miss Marple wasn’t feelin’ it. Too bad for you, Sir Henry buddy, friend-zoned by the greatest detective of all time!

(Which brings us to another point: the old maid seen as ‘unwanted.’ Miss Marple isn’t married, but she references two dudes in her youth—one who she fancied and her parents hated, and later she was like ‘Yeah, Mom, you were right, total stinker, whoops’ and one who her parents liked and she fancied but on getting to know him she was like ‘Sorry, dude, turns out you’re boring, who knew, whoops again!’ Jane Marple had options. And she chose the option of not being with anyone who’d bore her or cramp her style. Miss Marple needs a man like a brilliant crime-solving fish needs a bicycle!)

At one point a character laughs at her because she’s all ‘I am Nemesis’ and she’s knitting something and has a pink scarf on her head. That character is later like ‘Dear Nemesis, plz solve this murder for me, I shower you in gold, I bet the thing you knitted was awesome, I bet your scarf could solve crimes on its own!’

The woman who described her as a ‘typical old maid’ was Mrs Bantry, who became one of Miss Marple’s closest friends. Miss Marple also saved Mrs Bantry’s husband’s reputation when a foxy young blonde’s corpse was discovered in his library. Mrs Bantry, you got TOLD.

The Home Secretary of England hears Miss Marple explaining how she discovered a murderer and foiled a murder plot against herself in the last chronological novel, NEMESIS. He describes her as ‘the most frightening woman I ever met.’ Yes, by the end the Home Secretary and the current Commissioner of Scotland Yard are holding each other and weeping gently before Miss Marple’s awesome power. She may be a hundred and five at the time.

Because Miss Marple sleuths for forty years. Either the sheer force of her awesomeness causes time to pass half as fast for her, so she only ages twenty years. Or she starts the books age sixty-five, and is still facing down murderers at age a hundred and five. Or… Miss Marple was about fifty when the books start, and mocking other people’s expectations and dismissal of a woman gone in years by wearing a Victorian lace cap and pretending to be older than she was so she could enjoy the full tea and spying on the neighbours shizz for as long as possible.

It’s kind of plausible, in that Miss Marple stops dressing as if she’s dressing up in later books, and starts going around wearing tweed. She is, after all, a Master of Disguise. She will chatter at you to get you to let something slip. She will also be quietly comforting. She will pretend to be an idiot or to have gone slightly insane in the membrane. She will steal stuff, pretend to be an elderly relative, or pretend to be a voice from beyond the grave.

Underestimate her at your peril if you are in fact a criminal. She will come for you like a train. Nobody ever says ‘And I would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that meddling old lady’… but they should. Miss Marple’s author agreed. “If I were at any time to set out on a career of deceit, it would be of Miss Marple that I should be afraid,” she had the vicar say of Miss Marple.

Miss Marple can handle anything. The Miss Marple books are actually way hardcore. Incest. Quasi-lesbian quasi-faux-mother-daughter quasi-necrophilia goings-on. Some weird kinky stuff goes down in Miss Marple’s books. Poirot was not ready for that jelly. Miss Marple’s like ‘Oh, I remember having that jelly at the village fair. Twenty years ago.’

Miss Marple is in fact capable of anything when in pursuit of a criminal. She really does hide into a cupboard and imitate the voice of a dead woman. ‘Woo, woo, I speak to you from beyond the grave, tell them all you dunnit exactly like that attractive and well-preserved Miss Marple said you dunnit!’

She’s brave. ‘We are not put into this world to avoid danger.’ – she said in THE MOVING FINGER. Just because she likes to knit, don’t you think she’s not intrepid! She even saves damsels—Gwenda of SLEEPING MURDER is about to be murdered when Miss Marple blinds her attacker with a spray for the rosebushes. ‘Squirt, squirt, let me explain how this dude killed his victim. Take him away, boys!’

She knows everything. Where secret drawers are hidden in desks she’s never seen before? Check. How much fancy stamps are worth? Check. How to send someone a sexy message with FLOWERS ALONE? Check. Miss Marple went to finishing school in Italy. You know how it is.

The master of disguise strikes again! “So charming, so innocent, such a fluffy and pink and white old lady … she gained admittance to what was now practically a fortress … far more easily than could have been believed possible. Though an army of reporters and photographers were being kept at bay by the police, Miss Marple was allowed to drive in without question, so impossible would it have been to believe that she was anyone but an elderly relative of the family.” – This happens in A POCKET FULL OF RYE. ‘Murder investigation, coming through!’ Not only does she wander around everywhere waving her knitting like a passport, the fact she is conscious of how deceiving appearances and how false assumptions can be means she can see through other people. She knows people don’t really look at maids, so wearing a uniform makes you invisible… and able to commit murder safely. She knows how to look past dyed blond hair and a skimpy dress to see that an innocent schoolgirl has been murdered in THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY. You cannot get stuff past her.

Because Miss Marple knows people. She spies on her neighbours all the time… she studies them, and being interested in other people is shown by the books as not a bad or silly thing but as incredibly useful and worthwhile. She’s become, as she says herself, an expert in people. “You believed what he said. It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.” – SLEEPING MURDER. As you can see, this has made her something of a pessimist. Or a realist. ‘Sorry to inform you, but people are basically terrible. More tea?’ “There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people,” said Agatha Christie in her autobiography. Miss Marple IS very kind… but she’s ruthless, too. “If you expect me to feel sympathy, regret, urge an unhappy childhood, blame bad environment… I do not feel inclined to do so” Miss Marple says of a murderer. ‘Don’t murder people!’ is Miss Marple’s basic feeling. ‘I cannot believe y’all keep murdering people! This is so uncouth! Well, the rhythm’s gonna get ya.’

Where’s the end with Miss Marple? Hard to say. SLEEPING MURDER was the last Miss Marple book to be published: but it was written during World War II and Miss Marple is obviously younger in it, and some characters who died later still alive. Miss Marple is the oldest we ever see her (you know… maybe a hundred and five!), very frail but still sharp as ever in NEMESIS, which Agatha Christie wrote when she herself was eighty. Agatha Christie may have felt a lot more in common with Miss Marple than when she started. Miss Marple, unlike Christie’s other detective Poirot, doesn’t end her life with her books. She gets a lot of money and goes off to enjoy it. “She’s had a long life of experience in noticing evil, fancying evil, suspecting evil and going forth to do battle with evil.” – is the verdict on Miss Marple in AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL. She’s a knight errant, always off to another adventure in our minds. Miss Marple never dies.

And as to why I found her particularly inspiring for a Gothic novel…

Author William L. de Andrea remarked that ‘Miss Marple is able to solve difficult crimes not only because of her shrewd intelligence, but because St. Mary Mead, over her lifetime, has put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah.’ This ain’t a joke. The man was not kidding. Miss Marple was not just examining small human evils and able to work up to murder cases. ‘Over a period of some 40 years, there occurred in St Mary Mead a total of 16 murders—5 by poisoning, 2 by shooting, 2 by drowning, 2 by strangling and 5 by unidentifiable means—plus 4 attempts at murder by poisoning, smothering and bashing on the head. In the same period there occurred 5 robberies, 8 embezzlements, 2 series of blackmailing, several illegal impersonations, a case or 2 of poaching, and a number of crank phone calls, poison pen letters and criminal libels.’ (I didn’t do these maths: quote from Anne Hart’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MISS JANE MARPLE.) In St Mary Mead, they have a different word for ‘crime wave.’ They call them ‘Tuesdays.’ This is a wicked little English town! What the hell is going on at St Mary Mead? And I love the sleepy, old-fashioned English town with the dark undercurrent.

The most chilling thing for me in all the Miss Marple stories is one small casual mention Miss Marple makes. She often tells stories about lost shrimp, stolen lace and so forth in St Mary Mead, and in much the same way she says ‘There was Mrs Green, you know, she buried five children—and every one of them insured. Well, naturally one began to get suspicious.’ The vicar is distraught by the murder of just one dude, and declares nothing like this has ever happened before. Presumably he’d recall a lady murdering her five kids! Did Miss Marple know she didn’t have the goods on Mrs Green, and just hint Kid No. 6 should live or else? Did Mrs Green get disposed of secretly? Did Mrs Green just totally get away with it, and everyone at St Mary Mead is either like ‘No, don’t invite Mrs Green over, she is just too too much!’ or ‘Well, yes, darling I know she murdered her five children but she is a divine bridge partner.’ St Mary Mead, POPULATION MURDERERS.

What’s more, Miss Marple is definitely capable of solving a Gothic mystery. In the short story The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife, a madwoman muttering curses is the suspect in the murder of a beautiful young wife who has just come home to a rambling, ruinous manor with her new husband. Miss Marple, however, is obviously acquainted with the Gothic conventions. Someone’s succeeded in killing this lady, and Miss Marple knows it was her husband. So—evil village, check, Gothic mystery, check!

But more about the sleuth herself. There are quite a few kid sleuths (Nancy Drew, the Famous Five and Secret Seven) and elderly sleuths besides Miss Marple (Amelia Butterworth in the books by Anna Katharine Green, Miss Climpson as a sidekick in the books by Dorothy L Sayers) because both kids and the elderly have unique under-the-radar opportunities. Miss Marple is underestimated because she’s an old lady, and my heroine, like many underage sleuths, is underestimated because she’s a child, as if mental faculties are only awarded at age eighteen and taken away again at age sixty. But the ‘meddlesome Marple’ and the meddling kids use how they are underestimated to triumph.

There’s another thing, and it is this: Miss Marple talks a lot. So does Kami of UNSPOKEN. So do I. Ladies are often seen as chattering away about inconsequential things. Chatty Cathys: not too bright, and in some cases actually crazy. ‘Mad, quite mad’ murmurs the colonel to the vicar in THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE, as Miss Marple begins to explain who the murderer is.

He has to shut up his face because Miss Marple is, of course, absolutely right. You can be very old, very young, very feminine, very chatty… and be the smartest person in the room.

And that’s why I love Miss Marple.

In non-Marply news, am having a fabulous time in Chicago at the Romantic Times convention and hoping to see any of you around: Teen Day is open to the public!


( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
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Narrelle Harris
Apr. 12th, 2012 11:37 pm (UTC)
Ah, all praise to the Marple! Though I'm very much enjoying Geraldine McEwan's turn as The Nemesis. She has a fine, evil-pixie gleefulness about all the stuff she knows, and she can slap those Scotland Yard bitches down like a very polite jackhammer.
Apr. 13th, 2012 12:13 am (UTC)
I do have misgivings about some of the added plot-twists that ITV seems to like to introduce, though - BODY IN THE LIBRARY and CARDS ON THE TABLE seem to be rather badly served, for instance.
Apr. 13th, 2012 12:04 am (UTC)
Ooh sounds like something I need to read, Miss Marple sounds like my kind of lass. Which book do you recommend starting with?
Apr. 13th, 2012 12:05 am (UTC)
Apr. 13th, 2012 12:14 am (UTC)
I notice Mrs. Pollifax isn't on your list of elderly sleuths. If you haven't made the acquaintance of the little old lady so bored of life that she marches down to the CIA to volunteer... and is mistaken for one of their deep-cover operatives and promptly put into the field... you have a treasure in store.

The early books are the best; like many series it gets wobbly after about book 10.
Apr. 13th, 2012 06:56 am (UTC)
Oh dear, another series I feel I really must try, book 1 now ordered.

Thank you ;)
(no subject) - londonbard - Apr. 13th, 2012 01:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - neadods - Apr. 13th, 2012 02:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hobgoblinn - Apr. 20th, 2012 06:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - neadods - Apr. 21st, 2012 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
Oh goodness, do I ever love Miss Marple. (And Miss Climpson too!) This was a lovely post and has made me itch to re-read me some Marple. :)
Apr. 13th, 2012 02:39 am (UTC)
YAY Miss Climpson! She's so practical and fab!

Sarah, you broke me with: 'Joyce’s name changes to Joan in the books. Possibly Miss Marple steered Raymond towards a nicer artist lady. Possibly Raymond murdered Joyce and Miss Marple turned a blind eye.'

I have my very last Marple book saved for the end of my Christie read/rereadathon. I have decided to get through all of Sayers before tackle it. And possibly finish my own novel, the ridiculously overlong post on writing and editing that has reached 50,000 words and is not yet done, and tidying my suburb before I have to say goodbye to Aunt Jane ...
Apr. 13th, 2012 01:47 am (UTC)
Another awesome analysis!
Apr. 13th, 2012 03:23 am (UTC)
The Awesome Miss Marple
User 221b_hound referenced to your post from The Awesome Miss Marple saying: [...] is just a very fabulous and funny post on the epic awesomeness that is Miss Jane Marple: NEMESIS [...]
Apr. 13th, 2012 03:42 am (UTC)
I would also highly recommend Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, in numerous novels by the late, great Gladys Mitchell, now gradually being reissued. Mrs Bradley's sidekick is usually her secretary Laura (usual description 'Amazonian'), who is effectively her Archie Goodwin, or various of her younger relatives (she has had at least three husbands, and her son is a QC). She consults for the Home Office on issues of morbid psychology. Unlike Miss Marple, she is an openly recognised power in her world, so she is probably Themis, rather than nemesis.

She featured a few years ago in a TV series set in the 20s called "Mrs Bradley's Mysteries" starring Dame Diana Rigg in a parade of ever more staggering frocks, hats and bags. While not remotely resembling the physical descriptions of Mrs (later Dame Beatrice) Bradley, who is at least in her sixties in the books and described usually as 'wizened', 'yellow-skinned', 'saurian' and 'terrifying' (her smile alone can prompt confessions), Dame Diana does manage to capture the character's velociraptor charm.

I'm very fond of Miss Climpson too.
Apr. 13th, 2012 06:53 am (UTC)
I;d seen the TV series 'Mrs Bradley@ (this has prompted me to add it to my collection) but had never registered there may be books. Any recommendations on which to start with?
(no subject) - anna_wing - Apr. 16th, 2012 01:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2012 04:12 am (UTC)
I notice you haven't mentioned the veritable and intrepid Amelia Peabody, Egyptologist and lady sleuth extraodinaire. Series of about 18 books by Elizabeth Peters, and DELIGHTFUL!
Apr. 13th, 2012 05:19 am (UTC)
I've read her: Elizabeth Peters is Barbara Michaels under another name. ;)
Apr. 13th, 2012 05:47 am (UTC)
This is a really lovely post. I've only read two Miss Marple books, and I'm afraid to say that their style just does not come naturally to me. But watching a few of the movies with my mother was one of our traditions, and I've always had a soft spot for the character.

I'm looking forward to Unspoken so much! I know I'm going to be a horrible book pusher when it comes out.
Apr. 13th, 2012 06:35 am (UTC)
I love the cartoon, it fits well with what ITV have tried to do with 'Marple' (oh how I hate that title, it's rude and insolent in a way you shouldn't be to a fluffy pink and white elderly lady, unless that is you spy the razor sharp teeth hidden below all that dotty old lady stuff)

This post has inspited be to get my books out again, it's a long while since I read any Agatha Christie'sI also spotted a few new people in your replies that merit finding and reading.

I have a great Aunt who would get on well with Miss Marple, she's quite fierce but knows so much, she's the go to lady where she lives. She gets calls all the time, "Are you the lady who helps people whrn someone has died?" Mostly not people 'done to death' but people who just met their end but still . . .

Apr. 13th, 2012 07:11 am (UTC)
I come down firmly on the side of Nemesis being Miss Marple's last mystery: publication order or no, it's clearly the oldest and frailest we see her, and also it's just fantastically dark and good, with all of this looming atmosphere, and the ending of her heading off into the sunset with lots of money is one of the best endings for any fictional character. Sleeping Murder is a solid Marple novel, but it's nowhere near as good a send-off.

Though probably my favorite of her books is 4.50 from Paddington, or: What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, which should really have a third alternate title of, "Underestimated Ladies will Pwn Your Ass" for the teamup of Miss Marple and genius domestic worker Lucy Eyelesbarrow. It's so cozy and wacky and gruesome.

Miss Marple FTW.
Apr. 13th, 2012 12:27 pm (UTC)
This is completely awesome. Completely ;o)
Apr. 13th, 2012 02:53 pm (UTC)
I've only read one Marple book, but I was fascinated and delighted by her method, and the way it didn't fit the method of any other golden age detective I'd read.

Unrelatedly, true story: I actually had a dream recently in which I found Unspoken on the shelf in a bookshop and was horrified at myself for having missed it coming out, and then horrified all over again because it was this tiny little thing, only about 60 pages long. Traumatic dream all around.
Apr. 13th, 2012 05:23 pm (UTC)
Miss Marple RULEZ!

PS: Ariadne Oliver is cool, too.
Apr. 13th, 2012 06:57 pm (UTC)
"Poirot was not ready for that jelly. Miss Marple’s like ‘Oh, I remember having that jelly at the village fair. Twenty years ago.’"

*keels over with laughing*

Thank you for this post - it's great to have the wonderfulness of Miss Marple summed up so well.
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